Monday, February 27, 2012

Troubles of a Traveler

During my months traveling, there are certain things to which I easily adjusted. And then there are others I'm still working on. So here are my top five things I've found to be extremely difficult and have yet to master while constantly on the road:

1. Banking & Maintenance of Finances: Even though I recently added some PNC Virtual Wallet to my life, I still just can't master how to keep up with things during my travels. Though the Virtual Wallet has been a huge help because I just schedule out bills to be paid and automatic portions directed to my savings accounts, I just can't seem to not be negligent in some way each month. It's never anything huge, but I'm always hitting myself in the forehead when due dates are coming up. I guess there are just too many bills *cough, student loans, cough*

2. Seeking Medical Attention: It's hard being away from doctors, dentists and other medical providers when on the road. Luckily Highmark has this nice feature where you can conduct an online search of doctors in any area of the country. I used that feature when seeking out a physical therapist, and I ended up with a really great professional. Though it turned out okay, it is still a little nuts squeezing in dentist, doctor, eye doctor and other appointments when home for a few days -- especially considering the availability of some doctors.

3. Car Maintenance: My car has been so wonderfully reliable since I got it in 2006, and even after all the mileage put on it recently, it's still chugging along. Until the other day when my check engine light came on for the first time I've ever noticed. In my hometown, my dad's friend always works on my car and -- this is so sad to say -- but I've never had to take my car to any other place (other than oil changes.) This job has definitely improved my resourcefulness, but I wouldn't know how to begin looking for a mechanic in a strange city. My dad and his mechanic friend have instilled in me a fear of being ripped off by mechanics who want to take advantage of my gender and lack of automobile knowledge. And let's not even get into inspection! I should have gotten it inspected in January because I have a two-day window of opportunity to get it inspected before it expires in March.

4. Catching up with Friends and Family: I often use travel time to talk on the phone, because it's so hard to communicate with friends and family when I'm on a chapter visit. Often times I will see a missed call or text I received in the late evening, but by the time I have an opportunity to respond, it is probably too late at night. Out of all the struggles on this list, it's definitely the one I have the best grasp on. Maybe it's because it's the one I prioritize most. Quality talk time > health > finances?

5. Haircuts: Now I don't even know where to get my hair cut! I used to always get my haircut in my hometown. Then in Erie. Now in... where, my car? The next town I visit? It will probably be May before my next haircut. 

Until you're living this lifestyle, these are just some little things you don't really consider. I guess that's the life of a jet setter - er, this semester I guess I'm more of a Cavalier captain.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"It's always something."

After the amazing time I had in Arizona, it was time to fly to Los Angeles and assist our chapter out there at California State University-Los Angeles. The chapter visit was good, though my best memories came from spending time with some of the women and really embracing the different culture.  
View of Los Angeles as I flew into LAX

I arrived in the evening, but the very next day I began meeting the women. Their campus’s Greek Council was hosting a pageant event for participants from all the fraternal organizations. Though our chapter’s representative didn’t win, she was very entertaining and a great spirit! Though my daytimes were spent with meetings with collegians, the former chapter president and the current chapter president (who are sisters) brought me to their home to meet their family and show me around a little more.  The family, all of whom speak fluent Spanish, welcomed me with open arms.  Though their mom doesn’t speak a drop of English, she was still pleasant and warm.  The women were giving me lessons in Spanish by picking out objects in their kitchen and having me repeat them; it’s too bad I forget everything.  We went to a local ice cream place and got paletas, which are Mexican popsicles.  I’m unsure as to what flavor I got, but I definitely got a milk-based flavor. From what I recall, it was delicious and I’m very lucky to have had that experience!
 One other thing the women took me to do was see the stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.  I saw many different stars and hand prints from many different show business big shots, but my favorite was definitely the one and only Betty White!

Looking down Hollywood Boulevard

Betty White's star!

"It's always something. If it's not one thing, it's another." -- Gilda Radner, Saturday Night Live


This is where all the hand prints are -- in front of the Chinese Theatre

Yes, I'm on the ground. No, not entirely -- just my hand. But these are Meryl Streep's hand prints, so it was worth it.

I love Matt Damon!

This one is for Olivia! She loves Dame Julie Andrews.

It was such an incredible feeling just being there and thinking about how many icons and game-changers stood where we were standing.  For instance, Meryl Streep – the greatest actress of all time – was in that same location countless times.  Ah! I guess it’s just a magical feeling because ever since I was a child, I always enjoyed television, movies, learning more about show business, watching the Academy Awards and other award shows, and more.  If I were to do it all again (you know, life), I might have gone into show business somehow. Maybe running the twitter handle for witty NBC shows… but I digress. 

El Capitan Theatre -- a hot spot for many Disney movie premieres!

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Some really fun fountains!

Some stores along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Kodak Theatre -- the home of the Academy Awards (at least until 2021).

Los Angeles definitely is not a place I would ever, ever, ever want to live, but it’s a nice place to visit, especially for someone who has never been to LA or someone who loves Hollywood history.  On my bucket list for the west coast, Monterey because it inspired so many of John Steinbeck's books and has a bomb dot com aquarium, San Fransisco because it would be amazing, or San Diego because it supposedly is home to the greatest zoo ever. I'm looking forward to the next time I get to see the west coast!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Journey to the Grand Canyon

After visiting our chapter in Arizona, I took a day off work to see the Grand Canyon.  Ever since we first received our chapter assignments in August and I found out I would be in Arizona, I planned it out, booked a hotel room and rented a car in late August, so I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to visit this amazing geologic feature. There was just no way I was ever going to be only within a few hours of the Grand Canyon and just let that opportunity slip.  And I’m so glad I didn’t because it was so marvelously breathtaking.  I even met up with a friend from college to keep me company along the way too!

I began my journey from Prescott to Flagstaff (where my friend Ashley lives) early in the morning. I stopped at my favorite coffee place in Prescott and was excited to be on my way! Unfortunately, since my chapter tour of the Western United States didn’t really have me driving anywhere, I left my GPS at home. This left me winging it from my slightly-above-mediocre sense of direction and Google maps powered by the slowness of Blackberry. Unfortunately I was delayed on route because I ended up traveling one highway for a really long time. I kept going back and forth deciphering if I was driving the right direction, and then I would get so far and decide that the other way was the right way. After doing this for about 40 minutes, I finally was on my way to pick up Ashley in Flagstaff and be on our way!

I drove straight to Ashley’s house in Flagstaff to pick her up. There, I met her roommates, her boyfriend and her super sweet dog, Cedar. Before we drove to the Grand Canyon, we took a small detour to downtown Flagstaff.  There, Ashley brought me into Late for the Train, the cute local coffee shop where she worked at the time.  We took our handcrafted beverages outside and just sat and talked along the sidewalk. 

Ashley gets us some java

It's named Late for the Train because there is a nearby train station

After catching up over coffee, we dined at Diablo Burger, which was one of the best decisions I made while in Arizona.  It’s a  great meal and I enjoyed giving my support to this company!  All of their the burgers from Diablo Burger are made from 100% local, anti-biotic free and growth-hormone free beef. They also purchase local produce for their products, as well, and for the products they can’t source locally, they seek other companies who believe in their same values and sustainability practices. Even though the prices seemed a little on the steep side, but now having the knowledge I do, I know understand that it was more than just a burger – it’s a movement of support for the local and responsible business.  The burger I got was the Marilyn (which included Sharp Cheddar) and each burger came with fries.  Another fun thing about this place is that Diablo Burger substituted English muffins for regular hamburger buns and branded each muffin with a “db.”


 As we were walking back to the car, we passed this really neat statue of a lion, and it kind of reminded me of Penn State’s Nittany Lion shrine. Since Ash and I are both Penn Staters, we got our picture taken with this festive reminder of our alma mater.

Two Penn Staters and a Nittany Lion wannabe in Arizona

One last stop we made in Flagstaff was to the train station so I could get some postcards for people.  It wasn’t until we got to the train station that I realized that I was along the Historic Route 66! It was so exciting because when Allison and I were in Kansas, I joked around “wishing we got to see Rt. 66.”  And here I was in Arizona, not even realizing the highway passed through that state, let alone that city.  Needless to say, we had to get a few photos with the Rt. 66 sign since this clearly was a milestone day for me. 

Got my kicks on Route 66!
Main Street of America

At the train station!

Everyone in Arizona, at least Flagstaff, seemed happier and friendlier – like there were more smiles on their faces and like strangers weren’t a burden to them.  I’m not sure if that’s something in the culture or if everyone was just pleasant that day because it was a beautiful day outside. Regardless I had a great time in Flagstaff.

Flagstaff, AZ

After that short but pleasant stop, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon! The ride to the canyon was beautiful, some parts more than others.  Along the way, there were these gorgeous trees with extremely light bark and bright yellow leaves; they were quite the sight! We also saw a controlled fire happening along the way, as well.  That was neat to witness, because Ashley and I both had the same ecology professor (and best ever) in college and seeing the fire sparked some great conversation about ecology and the environment.  It’s nice to be around another loony hippie who cares for the environment and wants to talk about those kinds of things.

We finally arrived at the Grand Canyon in the late afternoon, checked into our room, and just barely had enough time to catch one of the busses and head on over to Hopi Point (if memory serves me correctly) to watch the sun set.  It was GORGEOUS. Magical. Simply breathtaking. I have never in my life seen anything natural be so vast. It was hard to even just imagine how big the whole Grand Canyon truly is (which is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and averages one mile deep.) It was definitely a rush to see the sunset, but oh was it worth it! Once we watched the sun set over the horizon, we walked along the rim in the direction to the hotel.  Very, very neat. 

Sunset at Hopi Point

Ashley and me!

A view of the Colorado River

This is what the walkways around the rim look like

We loved Sprees!

Having fun on a photo shoot!

Taking a peek into the canyon...

After watching the sunset, we grabbed some food on site at a cafeteria style dining hall, where the food was surprisingly decent! It had quite the variety too! We ate our dinner there and brought pie back to the room to snack on while I filled out some postcards and wound down for the night. 

The next morning, we woke up and drove to Mather Point (again, if I’m remembering correctly) to watch the sun rise. There were a lot of people there, but we kind of expected that because it’s one of the most popular places to see the sun rise.  It was fun when the sun was first peeking over the horizon because everyone began cheering and clapping like we were welcoming a new friend. We stuck around for a little bit and then grabbed some breakfast at another cafeteria.  We also browsed their gift shop, where I purchased the dream catcher that now hangs from my rear view mirror. 

The sun rising over the horizon.
The sun shining on the rocks below

 After shopping, we went for a brief hike into the canyon. We walked a decent way down, but it sure didn’t seem like it – until we were walking back up the trail.  On our hike back up, I encountered my first startling wild Arizona creature: a tarantula!  We stopped, stared, and took pictures for a little while until some more folks came down the path and wanted in on the fun.  It seemed like they were locals and frequent hikers, and since they must see these spiders all the time, they told us more about the animal.  The man even faked poked the spider to show us how tarantulas puff up to look larger as a defense mechanism.

View from the trail

Pondering life whilst gazing into the abyss

We wore our Penn State stuff on the hike!

Eeek! A tarantula.

Here is the tarantula in comparison to my shoe.

Because I had to catch a flight to Los Angeles in the afternoon, we weren’t able to spend that much more time at the Grand Canyon.  On the way out of the park, we stopped at the National Park Service sign and got a few pictures with it, and then headed back to Flagstaff where I had to drop off Ashley, return the rental car, and catch a flight.  Twenty-four hours is definitely not enough time to fully experience the magic of the Grand Canyon, but I graciously acknowledge that it’s 24 hours more than a lot of people get to visit it. I’m definitely not taking this experience for granted, but I want to revisit this park again someday for a longer period of time. Now that I’ve seen a glimpse of the Grand Canyon, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would be worth it.

Thanks, National Park Service, for a beautiful and clean park!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Arizona: beneath a blanket made of stars

After Colorado, I got to visit a chapter at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. I flew into Flagstaff and drove into Prescott.  It was the first time I ever rented a car, so that was interesting.  The rental car had power locks, power windows and cruise control, so I was definitely feeling like I was living a life of luxury! One thing I learned while at the airport was that Arizona is in Mountain Time Zone but it doesn’t observe, and hasn’t done so in more than 40 years, daylight saving time. So that means half the year it’s aligned with Los Angeles and half the year it’s with Denver. I wondered for the longest time as to why they were the only state to not recognize DST, but tonight I found out that it has a lot to do with the state’s weather.

 It was very neat to be on that campus and visit with the women there. It’s such a different school compared to those I’ve visited. It’s full of future pilots, engineers, and rocket scientists, and about 80% of the student population is male. When looking into the school’s library from the outside, the interior of the building is lit up to look like a runway. It was just such a unique school!

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Airplane Display in the Library

Airplanes Up Close

While I was there, I found Method Coffee – a neat local coffee shop. I must admit, I frequented there a few times on my way to campus and it was amazing! The folks there treated me well every day and were so friendly. I didn’t really get to dine anywhere locally while in Prescott, so I’m thankful for this discovery.

This wasn’t my first trip to Arizona, but it’s been a while since that memorable Griswold-like family vacation. And for some reason this time around, I was very much more conscious (some might call it paranoid) about rattlesnakes.  I asked some of the students if they had ever seen rattlesnakes on campus, but no one could ever recall an incident.  I even asked the women with whom I was staying if they ever had rattlesnakes, they responded, “Well, we put out snake repellent so there shouldn’t be any.” That calmed my concerns for the most part (kind of); however, I was definitely still walking around with my focus on the ground.  Thankfully, no rattlesnakes were spotted on this visit.

Campus View from Library

One of my favorite parts of my visit was a plane ride I had the privilege to take with the chapter advisor, who is actually a faculty member for the school.  She teaches students how to fly and asked me if I would be interested in tagging along for a lesson she was teaching.  We met at the airport the next morning, and she introduced me to her student. Before we even thought about warming up the plane, she and the student went over his last flight, what he did right, what he could work on, patterns he noticed, etc.  After they prefaced the day’s flight with some reflection upon the last lesson, we all went out to the tarmac and got the plane ready for takeoff.  After they checked the oil, made sure there weren’t chips in the wings, and did many other pre-takeoff rituals, we all climbed into the plane and got ready for taxiing. Before hitting the runway, the student went many of the safety things that passenger airlines go over before takeoff: the seat belt, the exits, where to find a fire extinguisher, etc. He even told me to keep an eye out for any planes I may see during the flight and to let him know if I saw any nearby.  They gave me a headset in order to do this and to also hear what they and air traffic control was saying.  It was such an experience listening to the student communicate with air traffic control, especially because it really sounded like air traffic control was mumbling the entire time. 

Our Plane! (The door on the nose is storage.)
All of the School's Planes
So excited to ride in this plane!

The flight was very exciting. During this lesson, the student was mostly practicing landings.  When we would take off, we would fly around the area for a little bit and then the instructor would announce a distance from the end of the runway she would like him to land. Once he would land, he would just keep going and take off again. We did this about five times throughout the flight. There was never a time when I was nervous or uneasy about having the student fly the plane. He did a really wonderful job and it was reassuring to know in case something unexpected were to happen, the instructor had the same controls on her side as the student had on his. 

Taking off for the First Time

Student and Instructor in Flight

It was such a fun time and something that I have never experienced/something that I will probably not likely have the pleasure to do again for a very long time.  The flight even sparked something in me to learn more about the process in getting a pilot’s license. I don’t think I would ever do such a thing, but hearing all the stories of how they fly to other states rather than driving was just so amazing! I’m not sure I would ever have the guts, or the money to ever be able to do such a thing, but it’s nice to dream. 

Another one of my favorite about being in Arizona was the night sky every night. It was breathtakingly clear – never a cloud in the sky and enough stars to make you just stop and want to stare for hours.  The sky was just so captivating – literally one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen in my life. Go to Arizona. Experience this sky in your lifetime.